UNLV FOOTBALL:

Take Five: Getting to know Wisconsin

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AP FILE PHOTO

Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, shown during the 2010 season while still at North Carolina State, where he finished his four-year run as the school’s third all-time leading passer.

In the 10th and what could be final meeting between UNLV and Wisconsin, the Rebels head to Madison, Wis., as more than five-touchdown underdogs.

A big spread on the game makes plenty of sense. UNLV is young, growing and last year struggled mightily away from home. On the other side, Wisconsin is stacked, and looking to build off of a stellar campaign in 2010 that began with a 41-21 romp over the Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Here’s a closer look at why Wisconsin is viewed as such a strong favorite heading into Thursday’s 5 p.m. contest.

    • Russell Wilson
      Photo by AP FILE PHOTO

      1) Meet Russell Wilson

      Early in the summer, when UNLV began looking at its first 2011 opponent, the coaching staff figured it would catch a break with Wisconsin breaking in a new starting quarterback on Sept. 1. Well, the Badgers have a new starting QB, but he’s far from green.

      Because of an NCAA rule that allows a one-time exception for graduate students to transfer without sitting out a year, Wilson found his way from North Carolina State to Wisconsin. He left Raleigh as N.C. State’s third all-time leading passer (8,545 yards), throwing 76 touchdown passes in his career. He is also dangerous with his legs, making UNLV’s efforts to plan for this one that much tougher.

      With this being his first start for the Badgers, plus Wisconsin maybe not wanting to show too much of its playbook with a big game against Oregon State looming next Saturday, Wilson might not be let completely loose. But, still, he’s a much more diverse and dangerous weapon than graduated quarterback Scott Tolzien, and the threat of what he can do by itself is tough.

    • Montee Ball
      Photo by AP FILE PHOTO

      2) Pushing the rock by committee

      Expect Wisconsin to run the ball a ton against UNLV, especially after doing so to the tune of 278 yards last September. The bulk of those carries will be split between two featured backs, but this isn’t your ordinary running back by committee.

      Junior Montee Ball and speedy sophomore James White could both end up piling up triple-digit yardage Thursday night. Behind a veteran offensive line that has 71 combined career starts, Ball and White should feel comfortable running on an unproven UNLV defensive front. Ball rushed for 973 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, but most of that came in the Badgers’ final five games, when he amassed 763 yards (152.6 per game), scored 15 touchdowns and averaged 6.7 yards a carry.

      White’s workload was more spread out, but he accounted for 1,018 yards and 14 scores on the ground in 2010. If they have big nights against UNLV, no one should take it personally, because they’ll likely do the same to several Big Ten defenses this fall.

    • Wisconsin Tailgate
      Photo by Sam Morris/Las Vegas Sun

      3) Beyond a home field advantage

      Here are the facts: Last season, UNLV was 0-7 on the road, losing those contests by an average margin of 34.7 points. Bobby Hauck knows that if his program is going to improve in Year 2, it begins with fielding a more competitive product on the road.

      If UNLV struggles in this one, though, don’t automatically assume it’ll be that way all season away from Sam Boyd Stadium. That’s because just about everyone has a tough time up at Camp Randall Stadium.

      With the Badgers coming off of a remarkable season that culminated in a Rose Bowl appearance, along with a stellar group coming back and the large amount of buzz behind their new hot-shot quarterback, the place will be juiced. If UNLV’s youngsters have wide eyes early, it won’t help matters at all. Wisconsin is 43-4 at Camp Randall since the start of the 2004 season.

    • Chris Borland
      Photo by AP FILE PHOTO

      4) Oh, and the defense is experienced, too

      The Badgers lost star defensive lineman J.J. Watt after last season, and he went on to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft. However, what remains on that side of the ball is pretty seasoned. Wisconsin returns nine defensive linemen who have combined to play in 169 games and have made 41 starts.

      In the secondary, the four projected starters have combined to play 135 games with 51 starts. The guy who could really take this defense to the next level, though, is redshirt sophomore linebacker Chris Borland. He’s an All-Big Ten candidate, but missed all but two games last season with a shoulder injury.

      Against the Rebels, he had five tackles, two stops for loss and a sack.

    • Nick Toon
      Photo by AP FILE PHOTO

      5) The X-factor

      He’s far from an unknown, but it will be interesting to see how much the Badgers get senior receiver Nick Toon involved.

      In three seasons, Toon has 107 catches for 1,521 yards and eight touchdowns, which are pretty modest numbers, but he’s capable of a big game at any point. His numbers could get a big bump, too, with Russell Wilson doing the throwing. How diverse do the Badgers want to be, though?

      Against UNLV a year ago, Toon had four catches for 54 yards. If they choose to really get him involved, he could test UNLV’s secondary quite a bit.

    UNLV

    • Conference: Mountain West
    • 2010 Record: 2-11
    • 10-year Record: 35-83
    • Series Record: 2-7
    • Returning Starters: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense)
    • 2010 Total Offense Rank: 118
    • 2010 Total Defense Rank: 109
    • Bowl appearances: 3 (3-0)
    • Enrollment: 28,203
    • Notable Alumni: Kenny Mayne & Suge Knight
    • Betting Line: +35.5

    WISCONSIN

    • Conference: Big 10
    • 2010 Record: 11-2
    • 10-year Record: 88-41
    • Series Record: 7-2
    • Returning Starters: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)
    • 2010 Total Offense Rank: 21
    • 2010 Total Defense Rank: 20
    • Bowl appearances: 22 (11-11)
    • Enrollment: 42,099
    • Notable Alumni: John Cusack & Phil Hellmuth
    • Betting Line: -35.5

    Rebels v. Badgers

    Camp Randall Stadium
    ESPN, Cox ch. 30, HD 1030

    5 p.m. Sept. 1

    Key players Sr. QB Russell Wilson, Jr. RB Montee Ball, So. LB Chris Borland, Sr. FS Aaron Henry.

    Overview: Snagging Wilson, a three-year starter at North Carolina State, was major for Wisconsin. It gives the Badgers a proven threat and enables them to keep the offense balanced, though rushing will always be the preferred method in Madison. Ball is a speedster who averaged 6.1 yards per carry last year. The Badgers are great against the run, too, and should only improve this year with the return of Borland, who missed most of last season with an injury after winning the Big 10 Freshman of the Year award in 2009.

    Key players So. RB Tim Cornett, Sr. WR Phillip Payne, Sr. DE B.J. Bell, Sr. LB Nate Carter.

    Overview: Everyone around the UNLV program knows this season is about youth. The Rebels will start as many as 12 underclassmen in the season debut at Wisconsin. Leadership from the likes of Bell and Carter should help minimize the jitters. But, then again, young teams are sometimes known for not being intimidated and just playing. That’s what UNLV coach Bobby Hauck has to be hoping for in this one. Cornett and sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring surely have a bright future together, but can they already start finding success this year? It will help Herring if he can get the ball to Payne, who is coming back from a foot injury.

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